Michael Simkin’s stage adaptation tests patience. Adapted from the bestselling book of the same name, Dear Lupin dramatises the real life letter correspondence of The Sunday Times writer, Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, his increasingly wayward son.
In essence, this is a story about the eccentric, landed classes; their indifference to convention and distaste for work. The plot focuses around Lupin derailing his life in increasingly extravagant ways while his long suffering father doles out deadpan guidance before cutting cheques to bail him out. The chief problem is that, emotionally speaking, the play is oddly un-inquisitive, seeming to take for granted the idea that audiences will be charmed enough by a story of profligate wastage without any deeper investigation. Yet, even its depictions of misdeeds fall short: we’re given accounts of misbehaviour too limp to elicit interest and privilege too rare to afford much common ground or sympathy.
Jack Fox inhabits his role awkwardly and his performance feels consistently strained. While he does bring a youthful naivety to his part, the overall self-consciousness undercuts his credentials as insouciant rebel and general black sheep. James Fox‘s handling of Roger is more assured, embodying a hard boiled cynic, unerringly unimpressed with the world at large and always ready with a quip.
That said, this is not a funny play. Jokes are delivered with the clumsy self-awareness of a child saying something naughty, and the script takes a ‘Numbers Game’ approach to cracking gags. All too often, the material relies on the scandal of caused by rude words or attempts to shock audiences with tame anecdotes of debauchery; “I don’t bite” says a Soho prostitute “….Unless you pay extra!”. Ham fisted and at times rather mawkish, it’s like watching a particularly bad Carry on Film. However, despite laboured punchlines and general cheesiness, the sheer persistence of the joke tellers has a sort of attritional effect; every now and then you’ll catch yourself chuckling against better judgment.
Less easy too look past is the flinty characterisation. Much of the play is spent detailing the upper class bubble, a world where dramatic tension comprises staving off inuit. The father and son are quickly reduced to characters; the relentless hedonist and the jaded, somewhat urbane, elder. Beyond our own struggle to engage with these two-dimensional figures, one is left questioning the depth of their own relationship. The two seem constantly to sidestep richer areas of exploration and tension; the child’s closeted homosexuality being a particularly huge elephant in the room. In a play ostensibly about father and son relationships, we’re left perilously in the dark; we infer a great deal of conflicted emotion between the two, but are exposed only to their small-talk and bragging.
An abrupt genre shift in the second half propels us away from the world of cheap gags into something darker. This move into tragic territory helps the material breathe and we start to approach their bond from a new angle. The largely epistolatory relationship, which before seemed so static and at times trivial, comes together. As father and son keep their grief siloed, disguising their turmoil through sarcasm and a forced devil-may-care indifference, we see there is a deep ambivalence towards the prospect of connection. One begins to speculate about why the letter form held such appeal for the two; with its barriers of formality and time delay, writing becomes an act that both connects and simultaneously keeps the other at bay.
“It’s all too easy to lapse into drooling sentimentality” declares Roger, before defiantly lapsing into a sentimental speech. Sadly, the play itself never quite navigates out of its own nostalgic quagmire. One gets a constant sense of missed opportunity; that a really good story was buried somewhere in the subtext or kept offstage. Enchanted with its vision of halcyon days of disobedience, we’re dragged through anecdote after anecdote, punchline after punchline spelling out the apparent naughtiness of its protagonists. At some point, the play simply leaves us behind. 2/5
Review written by Sean Gilbert.
Dear Lupin is currently showing at the Apollo Theatre until Saturday 19th November. For more information on the production, visit here…